“A conservative seeks to be grounded in reality… the drug laws aren’t working and more damage net is being done by their continuation on the books than would be done by withdrawing them from the books”. – William F. Buckley
With last week’s news that Australia is leading the world in illicit drug consumption, every conservative should heed the words of conservative icon William F. Buckley and admit the war on drugs is over, and drugs won. Despite a bipartisan consensus costing billions of taxpayer dollars a year, illicit drugs remain easily available, cheap, and potent. Meanwhile, 100,000 people are arrested each year and 40% of Australians are de facto criminals.
Conservatives frequently attack the left for not taking into account the opportunity cost of their actions – for “not thinking beyond stage one” – yet the drug war is a prime example of this. Even those unswayed by classical liberal arguments for individual choice must come to accept that prohibition has not only failed, but has leveled a terrible toll, not just on the economy but on society.
It was estimated that in 2008 Australian governments spent a staggering $4.7 billion on the war on drugs , which this week’s figures show has resulted in little more than clogging up courts and prisons. At a time of both federal and state budget emergencies, this is a vanity we just can’t afford. With 87% of Cannabis arrest targeting mere consumers , and with over 10% of sentenced prisoners incarcerated for drug related offences, prohibition redirects limited police resources away from real crime.
Law enforcement and incarceration are just a fraction of the complete economic costs of prohibition, with productivity costs to the economy estimated by the Cato Institute’s James Ostrowski at over seven times the enforcement cost. The social effects of prohibition, however, are far broader and far more debilitating to society than purely economic ones, and should trouble conservatives even more than the budgetary impacts.
Conservatives who stress the importance of the family unit should be horrified at the effects of tearing otherwise law-abiding (predominantly young male) parents from their families, leading to broken homes and a broken society. Worse still, incarceration serves in these cases as a “criminal university.” Upon release, with low job prospects as a result of a criminal record, many “graduates” of this university enter a cycle of welfare dependency supplemented by a life of crime. Is this the lifestyle to which we wish to condemn the next generation of Australians?
And who can deny the boon to criminals that prohibition entails — just look at the gun-slinging wild west that parts of Western Sydney have become. Drug prohibition is bad for law and order. Is it any wonder former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer has begged for drug law reform, as has the former NSW Director of Public Prosecution Nicholas Cowdery.
Let us be clear: Australia’s high drug use is not a result of lax policies in Australia. To the contrary, Australia’s use is considerably higher than in countries where drugs are legal. Even in countries where drug use attracts the death penalty, use is still high! Worth noting: This increase in Australia’s drug use has coincided with a 27.2% increase in drug-related arrests in the last decade, with a 66.4 per cent increase in drug seizures.
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the evidence shows that prohibition may actually create more users: Making something illegal gives it a “forbidden fruit” factor it would not otherwise have. Australia has a cannabis use rate 50% greater than that of the Netherlands, with its famous hash-dealing “coffee shops”. Portugal, which has decriminalised all drugs and replaced the war on drugs with a system of treatment, found that drug use halved within a decade of those reforms.
In the United States, the tide is rapidly turning against prohibition. Republican Governors like Chris Christie have branded the War on Drugs “a failure”, with conservative icon Rick Perry of Texas urging moves towards decriminalisation. States are rapidly legalising cannabis: the most recent of these, Colorado, has witnessed a jobs boom, garnered more than $10 million in taxes , saved up to $40 million in law enforcement, and witnessed plummeting crime rates, with murders down by a staggering 52.9% since legalisation.
Conservatives are right to stigmitise and condemn drug use, and to point out its damaging effects. However, using Big Government to enact social policies will always fail. As Milton Friedman noted: “Drugs are a tragedy for addicts. But criminalizing their use converts that tragedy into a disaster for society, for users and non-users alike.”
A shift is gradually occurring in Australia: Quadrant’s own Paddy McGuinness was long a lone voice arguing for legalisation, but more recently Michael Wooldridge , federal minister for health in the Howard Government, has admitted “we have 40 years of experience of a law and order approach to drugs, and it has failed”. Current federal Liberal backbenchers are starting to urge reform.
With the modern Australian left obsessed with enacting evermore paternalist nanny-state policies, any positive movement in this field must fall to conservatives. This is turf that is rightfully ours. As such, it is time we accept reality, and publicly demand an end to the failed war on drugs.
Tim Andrews is the Executive Director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance.